The 3 Steps To A New Language Learning Habit

Language learning is all about forming a daily habit, but how do you do it? The studies are in, and 3 steps is all it takes.
photograph of calendar for a language learning habit

New studies have shown that learning a new language is less about learning a new language, and more about forming a new habit. That’s why Babbel’s language experts have done some serious investigating into habit-forming. And what did they find? An important part of learning is repetition and regularity.

Okay, so not exactly a secret, but it is tried and true. There’s a reason why your favorite language learning magazine keeps raving about it.

Oh form a new habit? You make it sound so easy — but it’s not! Because if it were, I’d be a violin playing, tap dancing, wood-working, polyglot by now! A regular comment we hear from our users is that they can’t find the time to study regularly. Sound familiar? After all, at the end of a long day who wants some app scolding them from using the wrong German article for “horse”? Finding the time can be an issue for many of us, but we’ve done some research and we believe the real challenge lies elsewhere. 

It turns out that habit forming is about focus, not time. To form a habit you should start by choosing a small and specific behavior that you want to do every day. Saying you want a healthier eating habit won’t be very successful if all you have in the house is a frozen pizza. And contrary to popular belief, habit forming is not about scheduling. Instead, you want to reliably trigger that new behavior so it becomes second nature. 

Let’s talk about practical ways to turn that big language learning goal into specific habit forming behavior.

1. Take A Look At Your Current Habits

We form new habits all the time without realizing it. Think of how you turn on the coffee pot every morning, brush your teeth before bed, or lock the door when you leave the house. I’m sure you didn’t consciously train yourself to form these habits — rather they came about because of a trigger.

Take a look at the things you do on a daily basis and use them as an anchor for the new habit you want to form. Here are some pointers on how to choose a “habit anchor”:

  • It must be an extremely reliable habit. Pick something you always do.
  • It must be a precise event. Just like the new habit must be specific, so must your anchor habit be. A fuzzy anchor (whenever I’m in the mood for learning) doesn’t work well.
  • It must match how often you want to do your behavior. If you want to do your behavior once a day, pick an anchor that only happens once a day (e.g. “after I go to bed and turn on my alarm…”).
  • It should relate to your new behavior, both in theme and location. For example, “after I drop off the kids at school” might not be a good anchor for training yourself to do 10 sit-ups each day, since there is likely to be a time delay between the two habits.

The anchor is a very personal thing: You need to decide what is the best anchor for you, given your personal circumstances and lifestyle.

2. Create A “Recipe”

This part is deceptively simple, but it works. Now that you have your main ingredient, it’s time to create a “recipe” that you will practice everyday. The recipe will look something like this:

After I (real-life habit chosen in Step 1), I will (new habit you want to learn).

Let’s say you want to train yourself to learn Russian with Babbel for 15 minutes every day. In this case, a small baby step might be to visit Babbel, no more, no less. Your first recipe might look like this: After I have my morning coffee, I will go to my Babbel homepage. Or like this: After I brush my teeth in the evening, I will go to my Babbel homepage. And yes you read that correctly, only go to the homepage.

It’s crucial for your new habit to be that simple. When Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg wanted to train himself to floss, he began by only flossing a single tooth.

Your priority in the early stages of habit forming is not to set a challenging task (such as completing an entire lesson), but to find an anchor that truly works for you. Once you have that, you can start increasing the challenge. The key to a successful recipe is finding an anchor that will logically trigger the new behavior. Testing and adapting your recipe is part of the learning process!

3. Turn Up The Heat

Once you have found a recipe that works reliably, you have done by far the hardest bit. Remember learning a new language is about adapting a new behavior that can become second nature to you. Stephen King famously writes a couple of pages before breakfast (a very good trigger) every day. Once you have properly established the habit, you’ll find it hard to break – just like any other habit.

So, let’s return to our example: Once you are able to reliably trigger the “visit the Babbel homepage” behavior, you can enhance it to “do a lesson on Babbel.” This way it will seem effortless to you. Magic? Not really, it’s just the way our brain works. 

We strongly suggest that in the first week, when you are experimenting with your new recipe, you write it down somewhere visible in the same context where your anchor happens. Be creative! For instance, use lipstick to write on your bathroom mirror “After I brush my teeth, I will visit the Babbel homepage.” Soon enough, you’ll no longer need that reminder and you’ll be well on your way to making 15 minutes of language learning a daily habit.

Your language learning habit starts here!
Try it now